A Frigid Season

17 03 2015


The number of records broken by this year’s exceptionally cold winter is nothing short of astounding. As previously covered, February 2015 was the coldest month ever recorded in Ithaca’s 122-year record, at 10.6 F, it shattered the previous record of 11.3 F set in February 1979. But that’s not the only record shattered with this bitterly cold season.

According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, when it comes to the most days with sub-zero temperatures, 2014/2015, with 25 days of negative temperatures as of this morning, has the dubious distinction of being the winter with the most subzero days on record, beating the winter of 1960/61 and its 24 subzero days. Last winter (2013/14) is in a tie for third place with 1947/48, with 23 subzero days apiece.

From February 10th to March 4th (March 4th being the reading from March 3rd 8:00 AM – March 4th 7:59 AM), temperatures did not hit go above 32 degrees. That 23-day period is the longest streak of sub-freezing temperatures since January 14th – February 6th 1945, which is the record at 24 days.

The high temperature on February 9th of 38 F was the highest temperature for the month, which is not a record-coldest high temperature for February. It’s third, behind 1900/01 (36 F) and 1977/78 (37 F). January 1977 holds the all-time record of only 33 F, which it hit twice, on the 11th and 29th. Hence why it’s not on the list of consecutive days below freezing.


This winter had unprecedented cold, thanks to a persistent trough in the jet stream over the Eastern United States that allowed frigid arctic air to continually surge through the region (the jet stream is also why much of the West Coast from California to Alaska experienced a record-warm winter, where it ridged poleward and allowed tropical air to surge north). There’s no evidence to tie this to climate change, warming, cooling or otherwise – the relationship between the jet stream and climate change isn’t well understood, and while work by Varvus et al. have suggested that major meanders may become more common, others have gone on the record that that work has issues and the implications are still not known (and for the record, neither party denies climate change, just that its impact on the jet stream is uncertain).

Fortunately, we’re at the point of the year where so much more solar energy is being pumped into the atmosphere that it becomes much harder dynamically to have such frigid temperatures. Although temperatures will be well below normal probably for the rest of the month, and may struggle to break freezing, but nothing will approach subzero. And being March, places out West experiencing the strongest part of the ridge (Southern California) are starting to see “excessive heat advisories” – Palm Springs is seeing 100 F, which usually doesn’t happen until late May. With perhaps the exception of Seattle and Miami, everyone is getting the weather they don’t want or need.




News Tidbits 2/28/15: The Big Chill

28 02 2015

1. We’ll start this off with a little investigative work. A large medical office building at 821 Cliff street sold for $945,000 on February 23rd. The sale also came with two other adjacent parcels of undeveloped land, totaling just under 5 acres. Primary Developers Inc. (local developer Mauro Marinelli) sold the building and lots to an LLC with the oh-so-patriotic name “American Blue Sky Holdings LLC”. A little digging reveals the LLC is registered to a Lansing address that is also used by a renting company called Red Door Rentals. This company has never been in the news previously, and its website is nothing but a title page and an email address. A little more digging shows that it’s a recently-launched local business managed by Greg Mezey, a Cornell employee (and alumnus, as his name is familiar to me from when we overlapped as students several years ago). Red Door Rentals has 3 properties and 19 bedrooms, so this purchase is surprisingly large for a small rental company. I think it’s worth keeping an eye on this, watching to see if there’s any intent to redevelop the parcels, or if the LLC is just going to stay the course. Although the healthcare industry is a growing sector with stable tenants, a possible site redevelopment isn’t out of the question – previous owner Marinelli had plans approved in 2007 for a 44-unit apartment complex on a vacant parcel just north of the sold properties, but the project, called Bella Vista, was never built.


2. Well that was fast. It’s hardly been a week and 2 of the 5 units (the middle one and the second from right, lots 21 and 22) in the second phase of the Belle Sherman Cottages townhouses have already been reserved as of the 25th. These are not cheap, they’re going for near $300k. Taking guesses – wealthy parents of Cornellians, or permanent residents?

It may seem like these are a frequent topic of this blog, but that’s because unlike many local projects, they have a strong and regularly updated online presence, which makes my work much easier.


3. There hasn’t been much news about the Old Library site as of late, because the four entities invited to submit detailed proposals have until March 20th to get all their paperwork in. But one thing worth noting is that the Cornerstone project, the only one which has an affordable housing component, is asking for a non-binding letter of interest from the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. If selected, the IURA could offer Rochester-based Cornerstone and its partner the Ithaca Housing Authority up to $200,000 towards the development of approximately 70 affordable housing units.

In terms of community support, the Cornerstone project has garnered little interest, with the eco-friendly Franklin/O’Shae proposal and the DPI condo proposal receiving the most support. While this is the only project that offers affordable housing units, they’re apartments rather than purchasable units, and every proposal submitted in the RFEI misses the county’s (overly high) expectations in some form.


4. It’s not uncommon to find apartments through Craigslist, but at least one stalled local project is trying to find retail tenants through the online classifieds website. The project in question is the “College Crossings” development, which comes up in news updates once in a great while – since approval in 2012, the site has been cleared, but not a whole lot else has happened. The second floor was revised from office space to 2 apartments with 9 beds total, which is arguably a better fit and easier to finance in the Ithaca real estate market, and the developer (Evan Monkemeyer of Ithaca Estates Realty) claims to have two of its six retail spaces leased (for a Subway and a Dunkin’ Donuts), with a potential lease on a third space pending – as the site has claimed for months, if not years.

Apparently, the developer is now turning to Craigslist to lease the remaining spaces. Will it be effective? Maybe. It seems the project’s not totally dead, but there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of this mixed-use shopping center ever coming to fruition.


5. Looks like we’re about to shatter the old record for the coldest month ever recorded in Ithaca. Thanks to that -22 F Tuesday morning (the last time Ithaca was that cold was January 22, 2005; in fact, I can only find 10 days that were colder in the entire 122-year record), the monthly average stands at 10.6 F, 0.7 F less than 1979. Saturday will not be enough to warm up the average, so February 2015 will go down as the coldest month in Ithaca’s recorded history. Yay?


Ithaca is Cold

3 04 2014


It probably doesn’t take a meteorologist to realize that this year was a long, cold and harsh winter. But let’s give it some perspective. All data comes courtesy of the Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC).

Records go back to 1893 for the Ithaca area. If we look at just snowfall, this was a fairly average year. The typical Ithaca winter averaged 64 to 67 inches, depending on your source, with accumulations on 19 days. Barring any freak spring snowstorms (God forbid), this year will finish up at 63.3 inches tallied from 20 days of accumulating snow, virtually par for the course.

Then we take a look at the cold. That was the news maker this year – the cold, not the snow. Let’s put this into perspective and look at the period from November 1 to March 31st – what most folks would describe as the cold season, rather than just calendar or meteorological winter (we’ll hit met winter in a minute).

This was tied for the second coldest cold season since 1893. The average temperature was 24.8 F. Tied with the winter of 1969/1970, and 0.3 F short of the record holder, 24.5 F set in the winter of 1903/04. Even the detestable cold of the winter of 1993/1994 wasn’t as bad as this year (though it holds fourth at 25.0 F). The average coldest temperature in a year is about January 18th, with a high of 30 F and a low of 17 F.  23.5 F. In other words, the temperatures seen on what is usually the coldest day in a year could very nearly be applied to a five month period. It was that bad.

Now let’s look at meteorological winter, December 1 – February 28th/29th. 21.4 F. This is, surprisingly, not awful. It’s the 15th coldest meteorological winter on record. Below average, but not awful. 2002-2003 was worse (21.2 F). The winter of 1917-18 is worst, with an average of 19.0 F. So winter was cold, and seems to be shifting the blame to November and March.

In that respect, we have to hand it to March for being an epic piece of frigid dung. Fourth coldest March on record, at 24.5 F. Only March 1900 (24.4 F), 1984 (23.8 F) and 1960 (21.5 F) were worse. November 2013 averaged 35.7 F, which is once again below average, as the 16th coldest November on record. To sum up this season, it wasn’t just the cold, it was duration that truly made it a memorable year.

To touch upon the cold a little more thoroughly, the number of subzero temperatures in the cold season was 23. 23 subzero days ties second place for the most subzero days in a cool season. Tied with 1947/48, and one short of the record holder, 1960/61 (change it to met winter and it moves to third, behind 1960/61 and 1962/63). In terms of maxima, it still has yet to hit 60 this year, the last time Ithaca was above the “jacket line” was December 23rd. You know, because everyone wants a green Christmas, followed by three months of polar conditions.

So there you have it. Persistent troughing in the east gave us one of the coldest cool seasons in decades. If you want to blame someone, look at California and their persistent ridge out west, giving them their warmest winter ever recorded. But then, given the drought, and given that the fringe suburbs of SoCal may go through this again in six months, maybe blame’s not the right word.

The Keyword Bar XIII

13 09 2011

I feel a little guilty when I write “Keyword Bar” entries. I feel like they’re a melange of two separate thoughts – “Cornell and Ithaca aren’t doing anything I’m interested enough in to write about” and “I’m too lazy/busy with other things to research Cornell-related topics today”. So I depend on people prowling the internet and coming across the page in order to find topics worthy of writing brief snippets.

Regarding the opening photo; that photo comes from this past graduation weekend. I’m not sure if it’s the same person who put up the angry sign a couple years ago about how someone stole the peaches off their tree and as a result she couldn’t make peach pies to give to her sad elderly friends, but there’s a good chance it’s the same person (the sign did a good job of making me feel like a d—–bag and I didn’t even know there was a peach tree on the property). Anyway…

1. “new apartment building 309 eddy street ithaca cornell” 9-13-2011

I’m going to assume this is under construction? I’m going to go down there and take photos, come hell or high water.

2. “rothschilds building ithaca history” 9-12-2011

So, the Rothschild Building is also recognizable as the old Tetra Tech building on the east end of Ithaca Commons. Surprisingly, I have virtually no photos of it except for this one, where I’ve circled it in red:

The building was finished in 1975 (i.e. finished right after the Commons opened) and underwent a renovation in 1993, when Tetra Tech bought the previous occupant out (The Thomas Group) in a corporate takeover. It was built on the site of the old Hotel Ithaca, which had been torn down nine years earlier in the name of urban renewal.  The main occupant (Tetra Tech) moved out to the tech park last year because according to them, the space was too old and inefficient. The 76,000 sq ft. is slated for conversion into residential units.

3. “first snowfall in ithaca usually” 9-8-2011

Depends on your definition of “first snowfall”. Only twice in the past 20 years has there been an inch of snow before November 1st in Ithaca – 1993 and 2009 (October 31st and October 16th respectively). The 2009 snow is the earliest 1″ snowfall on the 120-year  record (however, November 2009 was 3 degrees above average and failed to record even a trace of snow). November usually averages 5.9″ of snow, but in the past decade there have only been four years with 1″ snows (November 18 & 21, 2008, November 9 2004, November 16, 27, 28 2002, November 23 and 30 2000)., and only 2 (2008 and 2002) that received above-average November snowfalls. But, in all except two years, there was at least a trace of snow in November. A quick anecdote, I think in the meteorology major, we said that the first 1″ day on average was November 18th, but if this blurb proves anything, it’s that it varies widely from year to year.

4. “edgemoor lane murder ithaca” 9-6-2011

None that I’ve ever heard of. Edgemoor Lane has almost exclusively been the home of professors, then fraternities and small dorms, since it was built in the 19th century, so a murder likely would’ve attracted Cornell’s attention, but nothing turns up online.

5. “why is cornell considered the heathens on the hill” 9-9-2011

Cornell was founded as a non-sectarian school, a radical departure from the norm in the mid 1800s. Many preachers and men of the cloth attacked the schools for its seemingly amoral standards, for instance not mandating church attendance. Heathens on the hill arose as a pejorative term that took on a more endearing, self-deprecating tone as non-sectarian schools became more common in the following decades.

Flooding in Ithaca: Because Blizzards Aren’t Bad Enough

4 09 2011

This kinda ties into the last entry, which discussed the historical context of hurricanes (a.k.a. tropical cyclones if you follow the research literature) in the Ithaca area. Irene, while it had devastating impacts in some towns in the Capital Region and the Catskills, left Tompkins County with 1-2 inches or rain, hardly more notable than a particularly rainy summer day. I went down to southern Connecticut to enjoy being exfoliated by high winds on a beach, and a decent though not amazing storm surge. Then I came back to my Albany home to find roof damage, and a 60-foot ash tree that crashed down in front of the duplex across the street and on top of a Honda Civic. I’ve had better weeks, meteorologically speaking.

As I mentioned previously, the two worst floods in Ithaca occurred quite a long time ago – in 1857 and 1935. However, this is not to say that Ithaca hasn’t been flooded in modern times. The flood control channel down by Cass Park is there for a reason. Also, here’s a youtube video that starts with the flooded intersection of Mitchell and Pine Tree next to East Hill Plaza from way back in December 2010.

But comparatively, that’s small potatoes to some of the floods Ithaca has seen. The 1857 flood was massive. It also hails from a much different time in Ithaca’s history, before the colleges, and when the town itself had a few thousand people. Although sources are severely lacking, the downtown area was underwater for several weeks. This was before the era of effective flood control, and since downtown Ithaca is basically surrounded by steep hills on three sides and a lake on the fourth, the drainage system is about as far from optimal as you can get. Add to that some relatively impervious soil, and it becomes a big soggy problem.

Flooding is not unlikely with the spring thaw, or rapidly evolving early winter storm systems that start off with a warm moist tongue of air, dumping heavy rains before the area freezes over (certifiable proof that Mother Nature hates us all). But the two worst floods are summer events – June 1857 and July 1935, respectively.

The flood of June 17, 1857 seems to be the result of a highly localized warm-season precip event directly on the Six Mile Creek watershed (the creek just south of the Commons), which gives me the impression of a wet microburst or a cloudburst type of event. Both tend to be local and related to intense thunderstorm activity (and here’s a fun thought for when you go to sleep – they are notoriously difficult to forecast, and microbursts are one of the biggest reasons planes won’t land near thunderstorms). Anyway, the raging torrent washed out two dams, whose debris then slammed into the Aurora St. bridge, collapsing its stone arches and sending the whole shebang surging through the town. Hell, you can quote Dear Old Ezra on that one.

Some measures were taken to improve flood control, including more or bigger dams (like the one on Beebe Lake in 1898), and these were damaged by further floods, including events in 1901 and 1905. But nothing quite prepared the ares for the disaster that was the July 1935 flood.

The July 8, 1935 flood, from the descriptions I can find, seem to indicate an intense and prolonged mesoscale convective system (big effin thunderstorm complex), or something of similar intensity, with tropical moisture but nothing TC-based.  At the very least, it was definitely associated with thunderstorms on the evening of July 7th, in an area spanning from Hornell to Binghamton.

The 24-hr. rainfall total of 7.9 inches in Ithaca (the weather station was on the Ag Quad) is impressive. The local creeks almost immediately began to flood, and as drainage brought more water through the streams, they began to tear away at their banks, and flood Cayuga Lake downstream. The damage went throughout the county, from homes washed away in Enfield to cottages being washed from the lakeshore up by Trumansburg. A passenger train was stranded, and all the train tracks in the county were washed out or impassable due to debris. Most state parks in the area were badly damaged and downtown was once again flooded. Eleven people lost their lives in Tompkins County as a result of the flood (with 52 being lost in total, and $26 million in damage [1936 dollars, equivalent to $409 million today]). The damage to Ithaca was about $1.8 million in 1936 dollars, or $28 million in 2009 dollars.

As for the university, being on higher ground protected it from the wrath of the waters. Barton Hall was used as an emergency shelter for almost seven hundred people. The damage to campus was estimated at $10,000-$12,000 (1936 dollars, about $250,000 today), mostly due to the hydroelectric plant being flooded and some trail and bridge damage.

So, maybe it’s not on a Biblical scale, but there’s something to be said about living on higher ground and away from creek banks in the Ithaca area. Or you can just look at the Beebe Lake Dam after a good rainstorm to get a faint idea of how much worse it could be.

The Hurricane That Flooded Ithaca

25 08 2011

Hurricane Agnes (1972). Image property of NOAA.

Ithaca weather is generally known for cool-season events (blizzards, ice storms and the like). I figured that with the current panic attack starting to set in on the East Coast regarding the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene, this entry is rather timely. Plus, most of my department is having a collective weather-gasm that makes doing work next to impossible (quoting one faculty member, “The Weather Channel has entered [for a disaster-addicted public] total ass-kissing mode”).

Anyways, Ithaca had actually seen some tropical-born activity over the years. I phrase it that way because typically, the storm has weakened into a remnant low or turned extratropical (i.e. becomes more like your standard cold-core mid-latitude low-pressure storm system) by the time the cyclone has passed into and over the region. Hurricane Hazel in 1954, for instance, passed over as an extratropical system with winds still at hurricane strength, but because the Allegheny Mountains wrung out most of the moisture from the east side of the storm, the region was mostly spared (Toronto was not so lucky). Wikipedia identifies 84 tropical cyclones that have impacted the state of New York, and as you might imagine, the majority of these have affected New York City and Long Island.

Reasonably, when a storm transitions to an extratropical state, it doesn’t just stop raining. Occasionally, if the conditions are favorable (i.e. moist environment and perhaps some topographical effects coming into play), the rain can be heavy and prolonged, resulting in flooding. This is exactly what happened with Hurricane Agnes.

Hurricane Agnes was the first named storm of the 1972 hurricane season. As a tropical cyclone, Agnes wasn’t particularly special; about the most unusual thing was that it was a June hurricane, a bit early in the year since the first hurricane isn’t usually until early August. Agnes formed off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and moved directly north through the gulf, strengthening into a Category 1 storm with sustained 1-minute winds of 85 mph. The TC (tropical cyclone) made landfall over the Florida Panhandle, moved northeast into Georgia while weakening into a tropical depression, and then passed over the Atlantic and redeveloped into a tropical storm before swinging back west and making a second landfall near New York City with 70 mph winds. Agnes merged with a non-tropical low on the 23rd, and this system impacted the region until it finally moved out late on the 25th.

This was a very dangerous combination. The combined system had large amounts of tropical moisture from Agnes, and was slow moving thanks to the non-tropical low. Therefore, rains of 6-12″ occurred over 2 days, with the highest recording at 19″. In perspective, imagine getting three months of your region’s normal rainfall in two days. The resulting flooding for Pennsylvania and New York was disastrous. In Pennsylvania, 50 lives were lost and $2 billion in damage (1972 dollars) was incurred. The governor had to flee his flooding mansion and downtown Wilkes-Barre was under nine feet of water.

As for New York, the hardest-hit areas were a swath from Olean east to Elmira and Corning. In Elmira, the raging Chemung River destroyed or badly damaged most of the downtown area. One of Elmira’s big industries was railroads and railcars, but the railways were washed out by the storm and the bill for repairs was so high that the railroad companies opted for bankruptcy instead. In my own experience, talking with the older Elmira locals, they say the city never quite recovered from the “Flood of ’72”. In Ithaca, where the rainfall came out to about 7 inches, several bridges in the city and in nearby Brooktondale were washed out and the low-lying areas near several of the local streams were flooded. The lake level also rose enough to flood and damage the facilities at Stewart Park. Thankfully, Cornell and IC were out for the summer, and neither sustained major damage.

Image property of TompkinsREADY

The final toll in New York was 24 deaths and $700 million in damage (1972 dollars). Keep in mind, Ithaca has had worse floods, in 1857 and 1935. But neither one of those had tropical influence.

So, Ithaca is far from the action of the tropics, but not necessarily immune to the passage of tropical cyclones. As for Irene, Ithaca will be on the edge of the circulation at worst, it’s simply too far to the west and under the “protection” of a short-wave trough. But if I were at Weill Cornell, I would be very concerned right now.

Ithaca is Hot

21 07 2011

According to NWS Binghamton, the high temperature in Ithaca tomorrow is expected to be right around 99 degrees Fahrenheit (~37.2 C). Earlier model outputs suggested a high right around 102 F. Regardless, the heat index (an indication of how it actually feels, thanks to the effects of high humidity) will be right around 110. It’s not often that Ithaca flirts with the century mark when it comes to temperatures (since most students know Ithaca as a frigid windswept land, any heatwave of this magnitude should be nothing short of shocking).

Being curious, I decided to glance at the NRCC climate records to determine the last time Ithaca hit 100 degrees (non-heat index). Well, a cursory check of the last twenty years turned up squat. So, I expanded the search, and pulled all days from 1900 onward that had temperatures recorded at 100 degrees or greater at the Ithaca station. Here’s the result:

07/03/1911 101

07/04/1911 102

07/05/1911 100

08/22/1916 101

07/02/1931 102

09/12/1931 100

06/29/1933 102

07/08/1936 101

07/09/1936 103

07/10/1936 102

An almighty ten occurrences in 110 years of records. The last of which was over 75 years ago.

Expanding the threshold a little bit, I checked out the dates where the temperature reached 95 F or higher. There were 129 occurrences in 110 years, a little more than one a year (but, since heat waves tend to be longer-term events, they typically occur in spurts of a few days at a time). the last day above 95 was August 15th, 2002, when the temperature hit 96 at the Ithaca Game Farm weather station. Looking more closely, the dates break down fairly clearly – once in 2002, once in 2001, twice in 1995, once in 1990, once in 1988 (a grand 98 degrees, the highest in the past 50 years), once in 1966, twice in 1965, and a record 5 times in 1955 (the highest of which was 98). So in the past 50 years, Ithaca has broken 95 degrees only 9 times.

So, it will be a hot day, maybe even one for the record books. I’m sweating in my AC-lacking apartment as I write this a few hours east of Ithaca, and I will be very glad when a cold front moves through later this week.